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A Flame In A Manger

Merry Christmas.  A re-post of a perennial favorite.

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For years my parents had been christening our one-acre front lawn with a set of those plastic Nativity figurines frequently seen huddled together during the holiday season.  When I was younger, the novelty of having a complete set—two lambs and a camel along with the full cast of characters including a shepherd—was enough to keep me feeling special.  As I got older I comforted myself that, because ours were vintage, displayed in a tasteful hay bale barn, and illuminated from above with a floodlight rather than garishly from within, my family had narrowly escaped being hopelessly tacky;  we instead rested firmly in the camp of whimsical nostalgia.  Regardless of the taste level, the annual appearance of the gang on the front lawn was something that provided a sense of continuity and, no matter the chaos going on inside, a sense that a certain Christmas serenity still reigned.

manger scene 1
I must have been photographing this particular moment, as only mom, dad, Katie, Louise and Pete are pictured.
manger scene 2
Louise with vintage (read–really old and chipped) Mary and Jesus.

It was my senior year of college that everything changed.  There were only a few days left of the term, and I slogged through finals with the promise that a comfortable, familiar Christmas on County A awaited me in a few short days.  Mom and I were wrapping up our once-weekly call that Sunday night when she offhandedly mentioned,

“Oh, and the Manger Scene burned down the other night.”

Coming as it did, across the phone line to my dorm room a couple hours’ drive away, my mother’s comment seemed even more incongruous.  True, we certainly did edit our traditional Sunday evening calls down to a skeletal minimum.  On my part, this was to spare her the details of the questionable choices that I was making during my last year of undergrad—a decision that she was more than happy to go along with.  This approach formed the crux of her parenting after age 12:  don’t ask any questions that you don’t want to know the answer to.  On her part, the lack of foreshadowing and leaving out of key details was more routine.  She never has been very good at foreshadowing things.  Dropped in your lap like an unexpected, squirming baby, her pronouncements were often without context and, similarly, without clear instructions on where to proceed next.  Luckily, it took very little to get her going, relating the story that now exists as a legend.

Apparently they’d gotten the manger scene set up a few days before.  It was a typical weekday night, and they were settled down in the family room for the evening.  A bright floodlight swept across the back of the family room as a sheriff’s vehicle swung into the gravel driveway.  They immediately assumed that this had something to do with the family’s newest driver, my sister Louise, who had already had one hit and run incident to her credit since getting her license in September.  (Fear not, the victim was the bumper of another car in the parking lot at dance).  They hustled to the kitchen door and stepped into the crisp, semi darkness of a winter night on the Wisconsin prairie.  The only light came from the manger scene, the dusk to dawn light having been ritually unscrewed to provide center-stage billing to the front lawn tableau.  The light seemed a bit brighter than usual however.  And and it was throwing off heat.  And crackling.

The nativity scene was completely engulfed in flames

The sheriff’s deputy exited his vehicle, glancing perplexedly from the Biblical inferno to my dad in his then-uniform grey hooded Janesville Fire Department sweatshirt.  Oh, have I forgotten to mention that he was the Janesville Fire Marshal at the time?  Must have slipped my mind.  The young deputy glanced nervously between the two and asked the only logical question:

“Sir, are you aware that you Christmas scene is on fire?”

An interesting question.  Perhaps my parents just were tired of that particular decoration and couldn’t see taking a trip to the dump.  Trash burning was not uncommon in the township, and who needs a burn barrel when you have a snow-covered front lawn as a fire ring?

His mind already reeling ahead to the implications of this very public display of the fire dangers inherent in Christmas light displays, dad wearily asked while rubbing at his furrowed brow, “Sheesh, please tell me that this hasn’t been called in.”  He was answered by the crackle of the deputy’s radio coming to life.  Oh, it had been called in.  And heavily discussed by all on duty firefighters that evening.  Dad told the deputy that he had things under control, no a hose truck wasn’t needed, and PLEASE don’t say any more than you need to about this on the radio.

As the deputy pulled away into the quiet night, dad wearily pulled on his barn boots and walked over to the fire.  He unplugged what proved to the be the inciting culprit:  a 50+ year old extension cord festooned at various points along its length with electrical tape.  Using a piece of scrap lumber he knocked the haybales apart, attempting to dissipate the the now roaring blaze.  Haybales really can go to town, once they get started.  They burned for several hours and smoldered into the night, long after my parents went to bed.  In the morning all that remained was a charred circle in the center of the lawn, melted plastic lumps marking the former positions of the holy family and their retinue.  Unfortunately it didn’t snow again for several weeks.  County A is a fairly heavily traveled road, and between the the dispatch radio and the road’s usual traffic, word of the incident spread quickly.  I think that dad took the ribbing in stride, and several poems commemorating the incident were delivered to the house, all set to familiar Christmas tunes.  The best was clearly “A Flame In a Manger.”

I didn’t quite believe my mother until I saw the evidence for myself.  And for those of you who have heard the story before, perhaps you didn’t believe it either.  But while dad put out the flames, mom had the foresight to document the proceedings for posterity.  Thanks mom!

Flame in a Manger

The next Christmas, mom went out and got a new set of figures at the Farm and Fleet, but things were never really the same.  The manger scene’s magical allure was diminished somehow.  One good thing, though, they didn’t need to purchase new wise men.  You see, the year of fire brother Patrick–he would have been around 8 at the time– had added some theatrical flair to the proceedings and was having the magi approach from the east, set to arrive on Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas.  Every morning he trudged across the acre-wide lawn in his boots and hauled the three statues several feet closer to the scene.  At the time of the fire, they were still far enough to the east to have been saved.  It took a couple of days for him to give up on the project, and for awhile the three plastic wise men were seen to be slowly approaching the burned patch of lawn little by little, inching their way through the blowing prairie winds toward the greasy plastic disc on the lawn of my childhood home.

A Rat With A Cuter Outfit

“A squirrel is just a rat with a cuter outfit.”

-Sarah Jessica Parker
This does not represent my experience.

I know that many people think that they’re cute, and there are entire calendars devoted to them, along with whimsical quotes about friendship and hard work. But I just have always had a problem with squirrels. Maybe it’s their sudden movements, maybe it’s their tendency to stare. Either way, I just don’t like ’em.

Could my father’s poorly-thought-out installation of this squirrel feeder be to blame for my animus? Perhaps.

This problem was compounded when, a few years ago, a squirrel tried to set up a time share situation in our ceiling. I was just minding my own business one morning when this horrendous scratching sound started interrupting my work. Now, I grew up in the oldest surviving house in Johnstown Township, as my mother will tell you with surprisingly little provocation. This meant that the sound of field mice running up and down in the walls establishing their winter digs was a familiar, if not entirely reassuring, sound every fall. I’m used to my walls making a little bit of noise. I can tune most things out.

But this was different. It sounded like there was something working to saw through the hidden ceiling joists. I did the only logical thing and banged on the ceiling with a broom. Like most upstairs neighbors, the interlopers failed to take the hint. After a brief silence, the noise returned, this time louder, and definitely more threatening. And with each passing minute, it seemed to move further and further into the depths of the interior space.

I suspected the worst, as the dining room ceiling abuts an area where three different roof lines come together and there’s a bit of a visible gap. But just to make sure, I summoned the neighbor to check. As he climbed on the A-frame, a squirrel made an escape leap over his head, sending the ladder and my stalwart neighbor flying. Confirmed. We were invaded.

I was ready to call an exterminator, but Jimmy figured we could handle things on our own. As he deployed a succession of jerry-rigged traps, I recalled with some fondness the more finite approach that my grandpa would have employed in similar situations: a shotgun. But we are not gun people, and Jimmy had read something online about squirrel trapping, so I was stuck. Over about a week he tinkered with traps and bait types, carefully examining the area for clues of the squirrel’s movements so as to correctly position the trap. He ultimately settled on a precarious perch on the steeply pitched roof adjacent to the squirrel’s new domain.

In blissful ignorance to our maneuvers, the new tenant spent more and more time inside, doing whatever squirrels do to emulate the sound of one of those mobile paper shredding setups. Meanwhile, I was slowly growing frantic and got to the point that I couldn’t stand to be in the house during the day. I ultimately gave Jimmy three more days to catch the squirrel before I called in the professionals.

Needless to say, I called the professionals. When the exterminator showed up, he poked around the crawl space and shone flashlights all over. I waited anxiously for the news.

“Well, you definitely got squirrels. Trouble is, there’s probably not much we can do about it right now,” he reported.

“What?” I screeched into the phone, frantically racing home to meet the exterminator for the bad news. As I drove, he continued.

“Yup. I figure you got a mother who decided to go ahead and have her litter in your eave space there. Can’t see ’em, but that’s probably what you got. Now, you got two choices. I can go ahead and trap the adult, but then the litter will be abandoned and and you’ll have to deal with that. They’ll die, of course. We got some industrial odor eliminators that I can give you to deal with the smell, but I can’t promise there won’t be biologic seepage?”

“Is that an industry term?” I squeaked, focusing on the random to deal with the horrific. I wish I could say that I was horrified by the idea of abandoned baby squirrels, but the phrase “biologic seepage” has a way of occupying one’s focus.

“Yes, ma’am, it is,” he replied in all seriousness. “So I can set a bunch of traps. But, now, what I recommend you do is, just let the mother raise ’em in there, take a month or so, and then they’ll just move on out and you can go ahead and seal the gap.”

“But the noise…”

“I got some industrial ear plugs that I can give you…”

I thanked him, declined his offer of expert traps, and rushed home, eager to remove the traps that Jimmy had scattered, lest we be left with any biologic seepage.

As I pulled into the driveway, I saw our neighbor waving as she crossed the street. By this point the entire neighborhood was aware of the situation, some even pulling out lawn chairs in the evening to watch Jimmy’s maneuvers. I couldn’t wait to tell her the horrifying news.

She beat me to the punch. “Hey, so that trap of mine that I lent Jimmy? I saw that it caught one, so I went ahead to took it and released it where I usually take them when I catch them…”

NOOOOOOO. I tried to be gracious as I thanked her for going out her way to help us out. I didn’t tell her about the seepage, but I immediately went online and starting looking up those industrial odor eliminators.

We lived on pins and needles of a different sort over the next few weeks. Where I previously cocked and ear in the dining room, I now tentatively sniffed the perimeter, like a guilt-ridden Basset Hound. Through some stroke of luck, we must have relocated the squirrel before the big event, because nothing much came of it.

Except, of course, the flurry of squirrel related memes, yard ornaments, and tchotchkes that came our way over the following year. The squirrel was christened “Scratchy,” and was blamed for any mishaps in the neighborhood.

Since then, despite Jimmy’s, ahem, repair efforts, the time share remains open. Due to gaps that are invisible to our eye and impervious to his various blockades, every few months I’ll hear someone show up and start poking around the condo. Unlike the past, Jimmy has his trapping situation down to a science. Within a day or two, the new prospective tenant will be caught and relocated to a park 8 miles away, on the other side of the interstate. Please note the the dog is of no help with the situation and, in fact, seems to cede authority to squirrels, bunnies, and even large birds in most situations.

A popular destination spot for area squirrels.

I really don’t know how the squirells keep finding our roof. I suspect that there is a posting on some squirrel bulletin board somewhere, advertising an pre-furnished condo. We certainly don’t do anything else to inadvertently make them feel welcome…

This may or not be on the deck today with this year’s gingerbread houses….

Stuff You Should Know?

Every day I listen to Stuff You Should Know podcast. Today, the theme was peanut butter. While the hosts fondly related the history and social significance of the stuff, I was lured down memory lane in a far different direction.

You see, I’m one of the approximately 1% of Americans who have a peanut allergy. But I was a trendsetter and had my allergy before it was popular. When I grew up during the 1980’s, there was no such thing as “peanut-free tables” or “allergen-friendly labels” or “adults who believed that peanut allergies were actually a thing.” So I developed a more free-spirited approach to my allergy, one that I would never recommend to patients, and one that led a number of interesting stories.

  1. My Grandma Bier fed me peanuts on two separate Christmases, mostly because cooking for allergies wasn’t in the vernacular of this generation of women. She eventually learned, but that first time was memorable. I wore my brand-new birthday dress to Christmas at Grandma and Grandpa’s. I was only four-ish, so I don’t remember the cookie that had the peanuts in it, nor do I remember feeling unwell. I do remember the dress, though. It had a blue corduroy faux vest with shiny buttons, and the bottom had a floral print with a ruffly hem. I loved that dress, and that’s why I leaned over and puked on my Uncle Jim, on whose lap I was perched, so as not to spoil the dress. Oh, yeah, I puked on you on purpose, Uncle Jimbo. I knew, even at the tender age of five, that corduroy can really hold a stain.
  2. My paternal Grandpa Cousin didn’t so much forget about the peanut situation when cooking–I’m not sure that I can remember him doing anything in the kitchen other than spooning sugar onto his shredded wheat in the morning. Rather, he didn’t quite believe that it was a real thing to begin with. I can imagine it sounded weird, and he must have thought that his carob and tofu-wielding eldest child had gone off the deep end when she assigned me this allergy. We all drove down to visit the Chicago relatives one day, and I must have gotten ahold of some Chex mix that I shouldn’t have. Again, I don’t remember feeling poorly. I do remember sitting behind Grandpa as he drove the Buick back to Wisconsin, and vomiting down his neck right around the Belvidere exit. I think he believed in it after that.
  3. Mom warned the teachers, but, again, this was a novelty that most hadn’t encountered. It was an asterisk next to my name of minimal importance. The Kindergarten teacher, the unfortunately named “Mrs. Gumness-Gabert,” probably filed the peanut allergy well below more important student data such as “frequent nose-picker” and “may ask for help wiping.” It was an afterthought that led her to paper towel-off the knife that she’d used to spread peanut butter on the other students’ apple slices before cutting a chunk of apple for me. Cross-contamination was but a myth. That’s how I ended up walking down the hall with the school secretary, my eyes swollen under wads of damp, industrial-grade paper towels. The teachers took it seriously after that, and in first grade, Sister Yvonne kept a roll of Rolos in her desk to substitute for any home-backed treats that made their way into class. She wasn’t going to mess around with any of that nonsense. That being said, the only lunches available for students who forgot theirs were the frozen PB&J’s that the nuns whipped up over in the convent. Only so many accommodations could be made in those days.
  4. After Kindergarten, I was pretty much on my own, and generally remembered to ask about ingredients and read labels. I carefully made sure that the M&M’s at Jennifer Schrab’s birthday party were plain, not peanut. It was a mystery, then, as to why Mom had to come and pick me up early when I started to feel peanut-ish after eating them. Peanut-ish being a combination of facial itching and a general sense of impending doom. Funny story, we found out later that even plain M&M’s have peanut in them, since the broken shells from the assembly line are batched, melted down, and reused! Ha ha, funny story.
  5. After that, I continued to make a lot of questionable decisions in the face of temptation. I had a pretty skewed sense of the whole risk / reward balance. I accidentally ingested peanuts in the vehicle of ice cream, scones, egg rolls, unnecessarily experimental pesto, and cannoli, to name a few. Although, to be fair, I asked about the green nuts garnishing the cannoli and was reassured that they were pistachios, when they were actually CHEAP PEANUTS DYED GREEN. I can also confirm the myths about peanuts conveyed through making out with one’s boyfriend who ate a Snickers an hour before at the basketball game. Hot tip: nothing freezes teenage hormones in their tracks like “your saliva makes me vomit.”
  6. People who know me know that, if I accidentally eat some peanut germs, I need to just be excused to go puke it out for a couple of hours. That experimental pesto situation happened on a trip to Hawaii with my husband’s family. We all stayed in a lovely house together, a fact that I’m sure they all questioned when my dramatic digestive system dominated the soundscape well into the Hawaiin night.
  7. I carry an epi pen, but I’m reluctant to use it, as that would mean a trip to the emergency department, and who has the time? This is all terrible behavior, and the exact opposite of what you should do. I reviewed the appropriate medical management of accidental allergen ingestion often, including at several sessions at a pediatrics conference in San Francisco one year. At that conference, I stayed at a lovely hotel right next to Chinatown with my friend Martha. She left a day earlier than I did, so on my last free night alone, I picked up some steamed buns and took them back to my hotel to eat. When I deduced that one of them must have contained a soupcon of peanut, I carefully avoided all of the pediatric training from the previous week, took a couple Benadryls, and hoped for the best. I was actually quite responsible, really. I wrote a note for the hotel manager, letting them know what had happened in case I was found dead the next morning. You know, to make cleanup easier. Good thing I wrote that note, I thought, as I leaned over the toilet and saw the water begin to shimmer. I figured I was beginning to pass out. What I relief, when I deduced that it was actually just a small earthquake!

And the really funny thing is that this wasn’t the first time I was helped out of a tight spot by a well-timed earthquake. But that’s a story for another day.

You know you’re old when…

I could write any number of funny things after the ellipses. …when you find your first gray eyebrow, when you have a favorite set of orthotics, when you start to think that the Land’s End catalog truly is meant for you.

These are my people now.

But today I’d like to focus on one particularly jarring experience: when you run into a kid that you used to babysit, and that kid is somehow an adult. Since I moved away from the area where I grew up, I have to rely on sighting reports from my parents. They will, for example, occasionally buy a sheep from Danny Pregont, a person I best remember as a llittle boy with a highly disturbing “My Buddy” doll in his bedroom closet. Or that the infant who cried for three hours straight after his mom left has not only stopped crying, but somehow secured a spouse. These things can be hard to believe.

Can you even imagine stumbling upon this horror in after the kids were in bed?

If you really want to twist the knife of aging, spend a little time on social media. Those kids who are forever suspended in mental amber from babysitting days, the sources of my $2-per-hour walking around money, are somehow fully formed humans who appear to be capable of spending time home alone. Interesting. When you miss out on the details of how someone who used to routinely pee their pants on the way home from the playground got over that habit, it can be hard to believe that they are now paid to do something called “consulting.”

But if you really want for things to get weird, how about the experience that I had the other day? While waiting outside dance team practice, I was approached (socially distanced, and obscured by a mask) by a woman who claimed to have a connection to me. Our previous week’s Facebook friendship provided her the clues. She inquired after my younger sister, who was her preschool bosom buddy. And then it hit me. Could she be?

Yes, I told her, Louise is my sister, and I remembered their being joined at the hip from age 2 to about 5. In those days, Mom maintained her sanity by taking any non-school-age Biers to the YMCA two mornings a week for “Gym and Swim.” That’s where my sister and my fellow dance mom became friends, I confirmed. Even more shocking, I had to reveal our other connection: that I was actually her and her brother’s babysitter.

Maybe it was just one summer, maybe two, I don’t remember. I do remember being allowed to supervise her and her brother along with assorted neighborhood children in the pool, being given $10 for the Wendy’s as a source of sustenance for the day, an intense fear of anything happening to the brand-new white carpet, and the fact that her mother owned a copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” I believe there was also a rogue hamster at one point, but I could be wrong.

She had no memory of me as her babysitter, which isn’t shocking. I don’t recall the details of my own occasional babysitters. Just that they seemed like some sort of cheap versions of adults, and that we got to eat junk food when they were over. Babysitters weren’t fully-formed humans, just stand-ins, like substitute teachers.

Now, I know what you are wondering. How could you two both be parents of same-age children? Am I an exceptionally old mother, or the vice versa for her? No, dear reader, it’s just that in the 1980’s having 4-5 years’ seniority on someone rendered you capable of being left as their sole caregiver for the majority of the day. In the days before cell phones or Ring doorbells, parents were cool with kids in the double-digits taking charge of things. As long as they left a note with the number of somewhere that they would be at some point.

It seemed logical at the time. After all, I had four younger siblings. I was adept at changing diapers and managing chaos. I was actually quite a popular babysitter. The kids liked me because I played with them, and the parents liked me because I cleaned up the kitchen after raiding the Clearly Canadian and PopTarts.

I’d trust that girl with the questionable hosiery to babysit. Wouldn’t you?

In retrospect, it seems so weird! When I started babysitting, I was around the same age as daughters for whom we waited outside of the dance rehearsal room–11 or 12. It is laughable, and it really made me feel my 45 years. That and the fact that my Lands’ End separates are so washable with just the right touch of spandex…